Origins of a Song

Grogan, Jake. Origins of a Song: 202 True Inspirations Behind the World’s Greatest Lyrics. Kennebunkport, Maine: Appleseed Press, 2021.

Reason read: this was a gift from a friend who knows me all too well.

What makes a great lyric? Opinions vary. My take? A song will grab me if the artist can drop into my mind, steal my heart, and take the words right out of my mouth. Be about me. Better yet, be me. The lyrics have to say what I mean and say it better than I ever could. I want to feel as if someone has been reading my journal or listening under the bed when I talk in my sleep. Lyrics don’t have to be complicated. They just have to mean something. But Origins of a Song‘s subtitle is misleading. This book is not about the true inspirations behind great lyrics. More accurately, it’s the inspiration behind the great song itself. My current obsession (Dermot Kennedy), my longtime hero (Natalie Merchant), and one of the greatest wordsmiths of all time (Josh Ritter) are not included in this book. Everyone has an opinion and mine is this: I think some songs were included not for their brilliant lyrics, but because some songs were smash hits and very difficult to ignore. “My Girl” by Smokey Robinson, for example. What is so special about the lyrics? The tone of Ruffin’s voice, melody, and instrumentation (piano) made the song a hit, not the words.
Bonus points for Grogan: he gives credit where credit is due. If Elvis didn’t write the song (did he ever?), Grogan makes sure to tell you who did.

Author fact: According to Origins of a Song , Grogan’s favorite song “Dancing Queen” inspired him to write the book.

Book trivia: Confessional: I couldn’t find a rhyme or reason for how Origins of a Song is organized. Songs are not in alphabetical order, nor are the artists. It’s not in chronological order according to the release of the song, either.

As an aside, I was going to catalog all of the songs and musicians Grogan mentions, but since the whole point of the book is just that, I refrained.


Whiskey River

Estleman, Loren D. Whiskey River: a Novel of Detroit. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2015.
Estleman, Loren D. Whiskey River: a Novel of Detroit. New York: Bantam books, 1990.

Reason read: Michigan became a state in January.

The first novel in Estleman’s Detroit series, Whiskey River, takes the reader into Detroit’s dark and dangerous Prohibition era where true events and real people are cooked together with vivid imagination, humor and grit to serve up a tasty story. Torture, murder, prostitution, political scandals, suicides, grand jury trials, corruption, and Detroit’s seedy underground keep the reader enthralled.
Constance “Connie” Minor goes from having bylines in the local newspaper to his own column in the tabloids. The price for this upgrade? Riding shotgun with warring mob bosses, Jack Dance and Joey Machine. He gets a ringside seat to kidnappings, smuggling, and up-close and personal torture and murder. Why is so liked by these mobsters is beyond me.
Hattie was one of my favorite characters. By day her establishment was a funeral home but by night the lights were turned low for more “lively” entertainment. She was a dame who took no gruff from anyone.
As an aside, I found the inequality and racism a little difficult to stomach, especially since nothing has changed since the 1930s: “Is he white?…If he weren’t they wouldn’t have bothered to call it in” (p 57).
I most enjoyed Whiskey River as a period piece. the 1930s comes alive with the vernacular, fashion, and transportation of the day: spats, derbies, top coats, silks, wingtips, stoles, fedoras, stockings, LaSalles, Auburns, Packards, Model As, Vikings, Buicks, and blind pigs.

Quotes I liked, “Remember, it took a fresh kid to tell the emperor his ass was hanging out” (p 30), “Someday maybe I’ll learn not to write the whole story until I’ve met its subject” (p 37), “Something had gone wrong with the natural order when an Oklahoma train robber was shot to death at the wheel of an automobile in downtown Detroit” (p 67), “Courage is the first casualty of experience” (p 92), and lastly, “A dream come true: I had a gangster for a critic” (p 199).

Author fact: Estleman won the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus award three times.

Book trivia: Whiskey River is the first in seven novels about Detroit. I am reading all of them for the Challenge.

Playlist: Bessie Smith, “Potato Head Blues,” Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman, King Oliver, “Royal Garden Blue,” “What a Friend I Have in Jesus,” Praise God, For Whom All Blessings Flow,” and Glen Gray’s “Casa Loma Stomp.”

Nancy said: Pearl explains there are seven “Detroit” novels and calls them sweeping and gritty (More Book Lust p 26).

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Big Ten Country: The Literary Midwest (Michigan)” (p 25).


Changed Man

Prose, Francine. A Changed Man. New York: Harper Collins,

Reason read: Happy New Year! January is traditionally the month to turn over a new leaf. Read in honor of resolutions. I also read this for the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge (category: a book that gives you hope for the future).

Vincent Nolan wants to be a changed man. Once a Neo-Nazi and a self-described “punk storm-trooper rapist,” Vincent is looking for redemption in the eyes of Meyer Maslow, a Holocaust survivor. I didn’t quite believe the situation. Why wouldn’t Maslow be more suspicious of Nolan? How does he trust this guy wants to change just…like…that? Is he really A Changed Man? How has Vincent become a moral hero overnight? On the flip side, I am also suspicious that no one at Brotherhood Watch would be worried for Vincent’s safety…if he really is a changed man. He just left a very dangerous, cult-like organization. Think gangs. Wouldn’t ARM want retaliation? Wouldn’t Vincent’s cousin be looking for him after Vincent stole his truck, prescription meds, and Soldier of Fortune magazine, and then left his little hate club?
The only parts I found believable were the times when someone was jealous of someone else (and this happens a lot): Brotherhood Watch donation coordinator, Bonny, was jealous of her ex-husband’s new wife (very appropriate) and she was jealous of her ex-husband’s importance in society (As a cardiologist, he saves lives. What does she do?); Maslow was jealous of Elie Wiesel’s “Holocaust” fame, then he was jealous of Vincent’s “changed man” fame; Vincent was jealous of the Iranian prisoner’s story getting more attention than his own transformation and he was also jealous of Timothy McVeigh’s limelight. Yes, that Timothy McVeigh. Threaded through A Changed Man is the real-life drama of the Oklahoma City bombing and the subsequent execution of McVeigh. It allows Prose to show both sides of a tragedy. The Jews were ecstatic when McVeigh was put to death while the neo-Nazis mourned and honored their hero. As an aside, Prose made Vincent look a lot like McVeigh for added creepville.
Overall, A Changed Man might be heavy on subject (Holocaust survivor, neo-Nazis, etc.) but super light on drama complete with a Hallmark-like ending.

Quotes to quote, “Becoming a white supremist for the free lunch seems even sleazier than joining because you believe that the white race is an endangered species, or because you like wearing camouflaged gear and the boots” (p 18), “Vincent’s not in the mood to explain about Raymond wanting him dead” (p 182).

Playlist: Mick Jagger, Billy Joel, Otis Redding, Tina Turner, Ricky Martin, Marc Antony, Tito Puente, Iron Fust, Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” Beethoven, Stravinsky, Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue,” “Pomp and Circumstance,” and “The Wedding March.”

Nancy said: Pearl said A Changed Man was in the stack of books by her side of the bed.

BookLust Twist: from the introduction of More Book Lust (p x).


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.

Reason read: I needed a book for the Portland Public Library 2022 Reading Challenge in the category of “A book that makes you feel hopeful for the future.” I don’t know why, but this one does.

It was pointed out that in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn nothing happens. There is no over-the-top drama involving sex, violence, or rock and roll. Instead, A Tree is a simple and honest story about what it means to be human. Harsh realities about poverty, crime, alcoholism, life, and death are not ignored or sugarcoated. I would argue that something does happen in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. A little girl comes of age. In the summer of 1912 Francie Nolan was a scrappy eleven year old. At the time, her best friend was a tree that seemed to like poor people. By the end of the story, Francie has lost her father, gained a baby sister, managed to find her way to college, and started to date. It is a story of hope.
One of my favorite moments was when Francie understands for the first time she can read and the fact she would never be lonely again. Books would be her companions for any circumstance. Another favorite scene was when Francie graduates and she receives roses from her deceased daddy. It broke my heart.

Confessional: The scene when Katie is playing the piano with the children bothered me. Neely starts to sign and it is noted his voice is starting to change. It is then that Francie remarks, “You know what Mama would say if she were sitting here now?” Where did she go? She was just playing the piano. I think Smith meant Johnny. Johnny was the one who was missing from the scene.

Signs of the times, “He was a boy, he handled the money.” The candy store was a boys store and Francie had to wait outside while her brother bought her candy.

Phrasing I adored, “ground-down poor” and “helpless relaxation.”

Author fact: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has such clarity it is impossible to ignore its autobiographical nature. Rumor has it, Smith originally wrote the story as a memoir but her publishers urged her to fictionalize it to reach a wider audience. Could they not handle the truth?

Book trivia: My edition had a foreword by Anna Quinlan. She compared Francie to Jo March, Betsy Ray, and Anne of Green Gables. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was also published in an Armed Services edition. The wartime copy was specially sized to fit in a soldier’s rucksack.

Playlist: because Francie’s father is a singing waiter there were lots of great tunes mentioned in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: “There are Smiles That Make You Happy,” At the Darkstrutters’ Ball,” “When You’re a Long, Long Way From Home,” “My Wild Rose,” “Hello, Central, Give Me No Man’s Land,” “You’ll find Old Dixieland in France,” There’s a Quaker Down in Quaker Time,” Ted Lewis’s “For When My Baby Smiles at Me,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (a song I can remember my mother singing while she vacuumed), “Molly Malone,” “The Soldier’s Chorus,” “When I Get You Alone Tonight,” “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” “She May Have Seen Better Days,” “I’m Wearin’ My Heart Away for You,” “Ave Maria,” “Beautiful Blue Danube,” “At the Devil’s Ball,” “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon,” “Kerry Dancers,” “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” Harrigan, That’s Me,” “The River Shannon,” “Holy Night,” “Star Spangled Banner,” “Schubert Serenade,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon,” Handle’s “Largo,” Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” Verdi, Walter Wildflower, “O, Sole Mio,” “Some Sunday Morning,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “Silent night,” “Annie Laurie,” “Last Rose of Summer,” “Sweet Adeline,” “Down By the Old Mill Stream,” “A Shanty in Shantytown,” “When You Wore a Tulip,” “Dear Old Girl,” ” I’m Sorry I made You Cry,” “Over There,” “K-K-Katy,” “The Rose of No Man’s Land,” “Mother Macree,” and “The Band Played On.”

Nancy said: Pearl called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a “classic coming-of-age” story.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Girls Growing Up” (p 101).


Lost in Place

Salzman, Mark. Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Reason read: China is a big influence on Salzman. There is a spring festival that takes place in China at the end of January/beginning of February. For the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge I needed a book for the category “An older book by a favorite author.”

Salzman can take an ordinary upbringing and turn it into a tragic comedy full of deep sighs and tears of laughter. What were American boys in the mid 70s obsessing over? Sex, drugs and rock and roll…and Bruce Lee. Picture Mark Salzman at thirteen listening to Ozzy Osbourne and practicing flying kicks just like his idol. Only add a bald wig, cello lessons, and an obsession with all things Chinese while living in the suburbs of Connecticut, and you have the makings of an incredibly sweet and hilarious memoir. This should have been a movie.

Line that made me laugh, “Man, you know the world is a confusing place when you’re a boy and your dad tries to get you to switch from self-defense to ballet” (p 112).
Most profound line, “We all crave certainty, we dream of serenity, and we want to discover our true identities” (p 266).

Author fact: Salzman is one of my favorite authors. I have already read Iron and Silk and The Soloist. I have two others on my Challenge list.

Playlist: Aerosmith, Aldo Parisot, Bach, the Beatles’s “Michelle,” Black Sabbath, Boy George, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Chick Corea, Chopin, Duane Allman, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Hendrix, Jan Hammer, Jaco Pastorius, kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Ozzy Osbourne, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon,” Ravi Menuhin, Stanley Clark, Ted Nugent, Talking Heads, Ten Years, Van Halen, The Who, Weather Report, Yo Yo Ma, “The Candy Man,” and “Dreamweaver,”

Nancy said: Pearl called Lost in Place funny and self-deprecating and totally irresistible.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter “Mark Salzman: Too Good To Miss” (p 194).


Tangerine

Bloor, Edward. Tangerine. New York: Scholastic Signature, 1997.

Reason read: I needed a one-word title for the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge.

Tangerine, Florida seems like a strange and dangerous place to live. Constant lightning strikes in the afternoons, continuous underground muck fires, and resulting sinkholes plague the community. That’s not all. Prized koi fish are mysteriously disappearing from the community pond. Swarms of mosquitos are so thick, trucks with choking pesticides spray daily as if on war patrol. Multiple houses need fumigating because of termites. Then the robberies begin…and the vandalism and graffiti.
Paul Fisher and his family have recently moved to this unstable area and all middle-schooler Paul wants to do is make the soccer team. Despite having a disability (he is legally blind), he is an excellent goalie. He just needs a chance. Since all eyes (pun totally intended) are on Paul’s older brother, Eric, the high school football star destined for greatness, that chance seems slim. Everyone adores Eric so why does Paul fear his brother so much?
Tangerine stuns the reader with harsh realities usually missing from young adult novels. Publishers Weekly said “it breaks the mold” and I agree one hundred percent. Confessional: some scenes were so harsh I found myself catching my breath.

Line that gave me pause, “Eric was as phony as he needed to be” (p 57). Little did I know how telling that line would be.

Author fact: Bloor has written a bunch of books but I am only reading Tangerine for the Challenge.

Book trivia: Tangerine is Bloor’s first novel. My edition has an introduction from Danny DeVito.

Playlist: “Try to Remember.”

Nancy said: the only thing Pearl said specifically about Tangerine is that it is more appropriate for boys than girls.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Best for Teens” (p 23).


Monkeys

Minot, Susan. Monkeys. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2000.

Reason read: Even though Monkeys isn’t about animals, I am reading it in honor of the television series “All Creatures Great and Small” first airing in the month of January. In addition, I needed a one-word title for the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge.

Monkeys was the term of endearment Rosie Vincent called her large brood of seven children. Cheerful and sometimes silly, Rosie was the glue that held this chaotic family together. When she is tragically killed the children are left to deal with their grief. Sometimes they are forced to parent an alcoholic father who can’t focus on his responsibilities (but manages to remarry in a year). As a stand alone novel of vignettes Monkeys may seem disjointed and fuzzy; not very well thought out, but when you consider Monkeys as a transparent autobiography, it makes way more sense. Minot herself has six siblings. Her mother was killed at a train crossing, exactly like Rosie Vincent. The first story (told in first person) could very well be Minot herself reliving her childhood memories. The rest of the stories are in third person and might be true events about her siblings.
As an aside, it would be interesting to read Monkeys along with with the works of her sister (The Tiny One) and brother (The Blue Bowl) for comparison.

One quote to quote, “One evening, Mum asked her to promise she wouldn’t commit suicide until she was eighteen” (p 81).

Author fact: At last check, Minot lived in Maine.

Book trivia: Monkeys is Minot’s first fiction.

Playlist, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”

Nancy said: Pearl said that Monkeys was one perspective on growing up in a large, dysfunctional New England Catholic family.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “All in the Family: Writer Dynasties” (p 5).


Shtetl

Hoffman, Eva. Shtetl: the Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

Reason read: in honor of Hannukah.

Inspired by a documentary Hoffman saw on Frontline, this is the biography of Bransk, a Polish town that no longer exists thanks to the thoroughness of the Nazis under Russian rule. One of the most difficult segments to read was the recounting of young Bransk boys conscripted into the Russian army. They were religiously converted away from their birthright and upon returning home, shunned by their own people.
As an aside, I am afraid of cult figures and the power they can wield over seemingly intelligent people. I was surprised to learn of a man in the 1750s by the name of Jakub Frank who claimed he was the Messiah. He wanted to rule all of Poland and had a strong sexual appetite for young girls and orgies.

Quotes to quote, “I believe that if we are to understand what happened in Poland during the war, we must begin by acknowledging, from within each memory, the terrible complexity of everyone’s circumstances and behavior” (p 6).

Author fact: Hoffman grew up in Cracow, Poland.

Book trivia: Shtetl was written after Hoffman saw a documentary by the same name of Frontline in 1996.

Nancy said: Pearl admires Hoffman’s writing and reads everything she publishes, but for the Challenge I am only reading Shtetl. Pearl would have bought Shtetl for someone exploring Jewish roots.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Polish Up Your Polish” (p 181) and from More Book Lust in the chapter called “A Holiday Shopping List” (p 114).


Lottery

Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery. Amereon Limited, 1976.

I don’t think I have to explain the plot to anyone. In one sentence: it is the short story of a community that annually choses someone to stone to death. I had so many questions as a teenager reading The Lottery in high school. Who was the third person narrator and why do they never express emotion or share the thoughts and feelings of other characters? It’s as if the scene they describe is too horrible for humanity and they purposely keep their distance by staying out of the other characters’ heads. As a result, the dialogue has to be heavy and masterful enough to carry the action. Otherwise, no one would understand what is truly going on. The other questions I had: Who was Mr. Summers and why does he get to conduct the lottery? Who came up with the black box in the first place? If everyone avoids the black box and keeps their distance from it, why have it around at all? No one wanted to help Mr. Summers even move it. Did this community continue using the box just because of tradition? Lastly, how does Jackson as a young mother come up with something like this?

Reason read: Shirley Jackson was born in December. Read in her honor.

Author fact: Jackson is bets known for her horror.

Book trivia: The Lottery first appeared in “The New Yorker in 1948. It was awarded the O Henry Award in 1963.

Nancy said: Pearl described The Lottery as “endlessly anthologized.”

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Ghost Stories” (p 100).


My Soul to Take

Sigurdardottir, Yrsa. My Soul to Take: a Novel of Iceland. New York: William Morrow, 2006.

Reason read: Denmark’s Parliament granted Iceland independence in December 1918.

The tiny Icelandic town of Snaefellsness is not known for a high crime rate, so when two people are murdered in a similar fashion, the whole town buzzes with alarmed alertness. Why would anyone torture both victims with pins in their feet before killing them? More questions: what does a dead fox have to do with one of the victims? Does the New Age health resort in an old farmhouse have anything to do with either victim? What secrets are hidden in this renovated farmhouse? Thora Gudmundsdottir, lawyer to the owner of the resort, must defend Jonas as the main suspect, but that’s not why she was initially called to Snaefellsness. Her client was planning to sue the previous owners of the farmhouse because they didn’t disclose it was haunted. The ghosts of children are said to moan and wail on the property.
Sigurdardottir is crafty. The introduction of World War II Nazi flags and swastikas gave the plot a darker (and unnecessary) tone. The themes of incest and rape are enough.

Confessional: because Icelandic names do not roll off the tongue so easily for me, and there a lot of them, I needed to keep notes on who was who for most of the story. I found myself asking, “will this person be important later?”

Author fact: Sigurdardottir also writes books for children.

Book trivia: My Soul to Take is book #2 in a series featuring lawyer/single mother, Thora Gudmundsdottir. True to form, I read Sigurdardottir’s books out of order. She also wrote Last Rituals which I should have read before My Soul to Take.

Playlist: “Eye of the Tiger” and “Final Countdown,”

Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about My Soul to Take but I should note I missed the word “series.” Ugh.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Iceland” (p 99). Doesn’t get any simpler than that.


The Sound and the Fury

Faulkner, William. Novels 1926 – 1929: The Sound and the Fury. The Library of America, 2006.

Reason read: December is Southern Fiction month. Luckily, this is the last Faulkner I have to read.

I wish I could say I adored The Sound and the Fury. I feel like I have an obligation to at least like Faulkner’s writing style because it is so close to another author I actually love, James Joyce. Faulkner appears to be heavily influenced by the Irish author.
Even though Sound got easier and easier to read as I went along, I couldn’t like the characters. Getting into the minds of the three Compson brothers didn’t help. Benjamin, Quentin, and Jason’s narratives all blur together and become one complicated and tangled stream of consciousness. I learned early on that the trick to Faulkner is to remember chronology is of little importance, the duplicity of names can be confusing, and for The Sound and the Fury, you must be comfortable with themes of mental illness, incest, and suicide. Virginity is a commodity in southern fiction. The moral of the story is every tree has a few secret nuts.

Lines I found myself liking: “She approved of Gerald associating with me because I at least revealed a blundering sense of noblesse oblige by getting myself born below the Mason and Dixon, and a few others whose Geography met the requirements (minimum)” (p 947), and “Honeysuckle is the saddest odor of all, I think” (p 1007). Not a line, but I liked the random illustrated eye.
As an aside, I would like to see the Sound and the Fury movie. I think I might understand the plot a little better if I did.

Author fact: Faulkner skipped the second grade and his surname used to be spelled without the ‘u.’

Book trivia: the appendix includes 46 years of Compson history, some helpful and some not so much.

Nancy said: Pearl called all of Faulkner’s novels “enduring.” Just how they endure, I don’t know.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Southern Fried Fiction” (p 205).


Spartina

Casey, John. Spartina. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Reason read: Read in respect for the December storms that batter the New England coastline.

Rhode Islander Dick Pierce suffers from a throat-strangling envy of the rich people who flock to his touristy seaside town of Narragansett every summer. His mistress calls it “class-rage.” Money, or the lack of it, makes Dick an ornery man. Most of the time he is able to control his disdain for the wealthy nonsense, but every once in awhile his temper will flare. It is difficult for him, as a year-rounder, to make a back-breaking living as a commercial fisherman while watching his neighbors folic in the house his family used to own. With a wife and two sons to support Dick knows he needs to captain his own vessel to bring in a better profit. He can’t make ends meet crewing for someone else. His saving grace is a 50-foot boat he calls Spartina he has been slowly building in the back yard. Now all he needs is an engine. Desperation to put Spartina in the water leads Dick down a dangerous path of foolish choices and regrettable actions. Drugs, adultery, theft. Nothing is off limits when a man is driven.
Confessional: I couldn’t decide if I liked the main character.

Author fact: Casey has a very intimate knowledge of boats, down to the very last detail. He is from Worcester, just down the road from me.

Book trivia: the history of Rhode Island is threaded through Spartina. It was unexpected to get a little lesson on the Narragansett tribe and their intended use of wampum.

Playlist: “Autumn Leaves,” “Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Maybe, Baby,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison.

Nancy said: Pearl said “You could do far worse than spend a reading life perusing books by Iowa’s distinguished MFA alumni…” (Book Lust p 107).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust twice. First in the chapter called “Ecofiction” (p 78) and again in “Growing Writers” (p 107). Even though Pearl included this in a chapter called “Ecofiction” it didn’t rule the plot.


The Mother Tongue

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990.

Reason read: December is Bill Bryson’s birth month. Read in his honor.

The language that we speak is akin to breathing. What I mean to say is you really don’t thinking about breathing in or breathing out. You just do it. Same with talking. Most of us don’t think often or long enough about the words we use. Even less of us think about where those words came from in the first place. Language is a powerful tool, used for good, evil or even just plain fun. Think about how lawyers can twist an innocent person’s words into an admission of guilt. Crossword puzzles are counting on you to think of the wrong use or meaning of a word when you are trying to fill in the squares. Jokes are often based on word play: either funny or groan-worthy puns. Words matter. When words are strung together to form sentences, they mean even more. Bryson’s Mother Tongue is nothing short of a run-on sentence about language facts. Page after page after page of witticisms about words. An onslaught of linguistic trivia. That is not to say I did not enjoy Mother Tongue. I found it fascinating to learn that Robert Lowth simply didn’t care for the pairing of “you” and “was” and demanded it be changed to “you were.” Explanation for some grammatical rules “they are because they are” is the equivalent of a parent saying “because I said so.” I enjoyed learning that the word asparagus comes from the combined words sparrow and grass and that al fresco in Italian does not mean being outside, but rather, in prison. It reminded me of runner and anthropologist Dr. Tommy ‘Rivs’ Puzey. He taught me that you have to be careful how you pronounce Machu Picchu. The wrong emphasis could mean something completely different. Just make sure you pronounce the second ‘c’ in Picchu. Wink, wink. Probably my most favorite discovery was the word aposiopesis: the breaking off of thought. I suffer from that all the time!

Quotes to quote, “More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to” (p 11). I would be included in that rest. another one, “When you look into the background of these “rules” there is often little basis for them” (p 141). Amen to that.

Author fact: At the time of publication Bryson was an American living it England.

Book trivia: Mother Tongue was written in 1990. What can we say about the English speaking world thirty-plus years later?

Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about Mother Tongue. She didn’t even give it an asterisk to indicate a must read.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Bill Bryson: Too Good To Miss” (p 36).


Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and Discoveries

Kirchner, Bharti. Pastries: a Novel of Desserts and Discoveries.

Reason read: December is traditionally when a whole lot of baking goes on.

Meet Sunya. She owns a small bakery in Seattle, Washington where the star attraction is her one-of-a-kind decadent chocolate creation, Sunya Cake. Only these days head baker Sunya has lost her mojo for any kind of sweet creation. Every recipe she attempts ends in distraction and disaster. For a baker not being able to bake, that must be like a writer suffering from writer’s block. However, Sunya has more to worry about than her own failing skills. She is on the rebound from a bad break-up (the lowest of lows: a friend stole her man); her business is about to go head-to-head with a bigger, glitzier bakery (think of a chain similar to Cheesecake Factory), there is a nasty critic stoking the fires of competition, Sunya’s employees are unreliable and fickle; her shop’s lease looks like it won’t be renewed due to financial instability. To top it all off as if that wasn’t enough, Sunya suffers from latent abandonment issues and an ever-growing identity crisis. The mystery of her father’s sudden departure from the family haunts Sunya despite the fact she was only two days old at the time. Even though she is of Indian descent, Sunya best identifies with Japanese culture, but who is she really underneath it all?
Through all this, Sunya’s character is honest and believable. She isn’t above ratting out her competition to the food inspector (pun totally intended). She harbors enormous jealousy for the woman who stole her boyfriend (as mentioned before, someone she used to call her friend). She definitely has relationship issues thanks to the mystery of her father leaving her. Even sexy movie director Andrew has trouble convincing Sunya he is interested in more than just her chocolate cake.

Author fact: Kirchner also wrote The Bold Vegetarian: 150 Inspired International Recipes which was on my Challenge list even though I didn’t need to read it.

Book trivia: this should be a movie.

Playlist: Bach, Brahms, Pearl Jam, and Andres Segovia.

Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about Pastries.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Fiction for Foodies” (p 88). See why The Bold Vegetarian shouldn’t have been on my Challenge list?


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Vuong, Ocean. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. New York: Penguin Press, 2019.

Reason read: Are you holding onto your hats? Are you sitting down? I’m going off the Challenge list for this one. Why? Basically, I will read everything my sister recommends. Why? She’s cool and she doesn’t waste her time with boring books.

Is it enough to say that On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is heartbreakingly beautiful? I could go on to elaborate: the language is harsh yet poignant, stark yet lush, truthful yet magical. Little Dog writes a letter to his mother to…what? Explain his choices? Tell her how her life has shaped his? Make a declaration of love to the world around him? His motives are unclear, but the language stirs the heart. For example, the imagery of a lighthouse: seen as both shelter and warning. Could a woman be both monster and mother?

Lines I loved: “We sidestep ourselves in order to move forward” (p 53). If I were a lecturer and I had actually coined that phrase I would repeat it and ask the audience to let the words sink in. There is more truth in those eight little words than I care to admit. One more to quote, “Maybe we look in mirrors not merely to seek beauty, regardless of how illusive, but to make sure, despite the facts, that we are still here” (p 138).

Book trivia: this should be a movie. Seriously. For something completely random, Vuong thanked Frank Ocean. I am wondering if this is the same Frank Ocean Dermot Kennedy thanked for the song, “Swim Good.”

Author fact: According to the back flap of On Earth… Vuong lived in Northampton in 2019. I am not a stalker so I don’t know if that’s still true. If it is, this author is less than 30 minutes from me. Cool. In a more widely (undisputed) fact, Vuong is a poet which is abundantly obvious in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

Playlist: Khanh Ly, Neil Young, 50 Cent, Etta James, Curtis Jackson, Chopin, Justin Timberlake, Miles Davis, Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love?,” Led Zeppelin’s “Get Rich, or Die Tryin’,” “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”